Stereotypes thwart aspirations of young Black men

MPS Black Male Achievement director gets some barbershop ‘real truth’


By Charles Hallman

Staff Writer


Shahmar Dennis plans to graduate next spring from Roosevelt High School. He also plans to continue his post-secondary education by studying computer science, with hopes to one day work as a computer programmer after earning a college degree at a school not yet decided upon.

His hopes, dreams and goals mostly were self-directed and self-motivated, undeterred by some of his teachers’ stereotypical beliefs that Black young men are incapable of competent classroom achievement. When Dennis inquired about his school’s International Baccalaureate (IB) program, a teacher discouraged him; but when a White student went to the same teacher, that student immediately received a pass to see a school counselor about taking IB classes.

 (l-r) Shahmar Dennis and Michael Walker Photo by Charles Hallman
(l-r) Shahmar Dennis and Michael Walker
Photo by Charles Hallman

“I feel like teachers have the stigma about African American students on how they are supposed to act, speak, and how they perceive education,” recalled Dennis when speaking to the MSR soon after his appearance at the November 10 regularly scheduled Minneapolis School Board meeting. “We know stereotypes are not always true, but the majority of the time they are not true.”

“He [Dennis] always had that drive in him,” notes Michael Walker, the first director of Minneapolis Public Schools [MPS] Black Male Student Achievement Office. “That was heartbreaking for him to have to experience that [because] he has been a student that has been successful academically. From what I know, that was his first experience from someone not believing in what he was capable of.

“I just feel that African Americans, whether male or female, shouldn’t have to put in more work or shouldn’t have to overemphasize themselves…so that they can get the rightful attention and get the same education from the teacher,” Walker continues.

“I just want to break away from the stereotype,” said Dennis, who was among the 100 or more Black young men across 11 MPS schools Walker met with during his “100 Days of Discovery” that he embarked upon shortly after being named to his position in July.

“He is a student that does well in school, who doesn’t causes any problems or issues, but he still got that same question. It’s about the color of his skin, that’s [why he] got that puzzled look from that teacher about going down to meet with the IB coordinator,” says Walker of the Roosevelt senior.

“Yet that young man pushes through, so that didn’t detour him,” notes Walker. “That made him want to work even harder.”

Now, as he proceeds into his next 100 days, Walker still is meeting with community folk. Last Friday he spoke at the monthly Sports & Education Alliance breakfast forum, which was held at North High School.

“We already know what’s going on” in Black academic achievement in MPS, he pointed out. But what he heard at the barber and beauty shops was the real talk that often is a staple at these establishments.

“I think the community needs to be heavily involved” in Walker’s efforts, says Gina Villarreal, who has a teenage son who attending Minneapolis Public Schools.

“We don’t reach out in our community enough,” adds Walker. “It was information I needed to hear and MPS needed to hear. I wanted to hear some real truth of what’s going on.

“The men at a couple of [barbershops] said we don’t just only need educators to support our young Black men, we need people to come into our schools who are not necessarily educators, but they have valuable information that they can provide our young men. So how do we get those people into our spaces to be accessible to our young men to help them excel and move their academics forward?”

The many students he met with, such as Dennis, told him “stories of belief” — what is oft-perceived of Black male youth by those around them, especially by White female teachers. “I was most impressed [by the students] that knew exactly what they want and how they wanted it,” says the director, who grew up on the North Side and is himself a Roosevelt graduate.

“[They say,] ‘I want Black men to be my mentors, and I want to make sure that I have access to them more than just one hour a day coming into my school, helping me with my work.”

Walker’s overall plan includes instituting a B.L.A.C.K. program [Building Lives Acquiring Cultural Knowledge]. “It is going to be about self-identity and self-worth,” explains the director, who also wants to increase Black male graduation rates by 10 percent, daily attendance by 55 percent, and participation in advanced coursework by five percent. Walker says currently four percent of students taking advanced classes are Black versus 13 percent of White students.

“I’m excited to get started,” says Walker of his next 100 days now underway. “We have to have a growth mindset” not only among the young men but also by MPS staff members — teachers, principals and administrators, he states. “We have to believe that our young people can and will be successful, and that starts with us as adults.”

“I hope to be one of the best in the field,” pledged Dennis on his career plans of becoming a computer programmer. “I’m looking for one of the best colleges that offer the best education.”

“He is going to be a success,” Walker declares.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.